Many congregants refer to the Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina as "Mother Emanuel" because of its storied past, as well as its central role as a place of worship and social gathering place for many in the city's African American community.

The church is one of dozens of African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches across the United States, the oldest independent denomination founded by blacks.

AME churches are an offshoot from a white-run Methodist denomination that once refused entry to black members.

The picturesque white brick Gothic church with its weather vane-topped steeple -- one of the most recognizable structures in Charleston -- has come to be seen as a symbolic beacon for African American worshippers not just in the city, but throughout the nation.

President Barack Obama alluded to Emanuel Church's central place in Charleston's history, in poignant remarks Thursday addressing the tragedy.

"Mother Emanuel is, in fact, more than a church," the president said.

"This is a place of worship that was founded by African-Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground, because its worshippers worked to end slavery," Obama said.

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